The most loved and mesmerizing of classical ballets, “Swan Lake” was Tchaikovsky’s first. It was composed in 1875 and over 100 years later it remains a favorite with ballet companies regularly performing it throughout the world. “Swan Lake” debuted in 1877 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, but it was not well-received at the time. In 1895, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov reworked the choreography for their St Petersburg performance and this has remained the most popular version. “Swan Lake” made its American debut with a 1940 performance by the San Francisco Ballet.
The Story of “Swan Lake”
“Swan Lake” is a timeless love story that mixes magic, tragedy, and romance into four acts. It features Prince Siegfried and a lovely swan princess named Odette. Under the spell of a sorcerer, Odette spends her days as a swan swimming on a lake of tears and her nights in her beautiful human form.
The couple quickly falls in love. As in most fairy tales, things are not that easy and the sorcerer has more tricks to play. That brings Odile, his daughter, into the picture. Confusion, forgiveness, and a happy ending with Siegfried and Odette together forever round off the ballet.
Reading the synopsis of the four acts will fill you in on the rest of the story. Yet, it is interesting to note that in many performances, a single prima ballerina plays both Odette and Odile. It is a role that ballerinas strive for from a very young age.
Prince Siegfried arrives at his 21st birthday celebration on the palace courtyards. Here, he finds all of the royal families and townspeople dancing and celebrating, while the young girls are anxiously seeking his attention.
During the exquisite celebration, his mother gives him a crossbow. She informs him that because he is now of age, his marriage will be quickly arranged. Hit with the sudden realization of his future responsibilities, he takes his crossbow and runs to the woods with his hunting buddies.
Getting ahead of the group, Prince Siegfried finds himself alone in a peaceful spot by an enchanted lake where swans gently float across its surface. While Siegfried watches, he spots the most beautiful swan with a crown on its head.
His buddies soon catch up, but he orders them to leave so he can be by himself. As dusk falls, the swan with the crown turns into the most beautiful young woman he has ever seen. Her name is Odette, the Swan Queen.
Odette informs the young prince about an evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart, who happens to be disguised as Prince Siegfried’s mentor. It was Rothbart who turned her and the other girls into swans. The lake was formed by the tears of their parents’ weeping. She tells him that the only way the spell can be broken is if a man, pure in heart, pledges his love to her.
The prince, about to confess his love for her, is quickly interrupted by the evil sorcerer. He takes Odette from Prince Siegfried’s embrace and commands all of the swan maidens to dance upon the lake and its shore so that the prince cannot chase them. Prince Siegfried is left all alone on the shore of Swan Lake.
The next day at the formal celebration in the Royal Hall, Prince Siegfried is presented with many prospective princesses. Although the ladies are worthy of his attention, he cannot stop thinking about Odette.
His mother commands him to choose a bride, but he cannot. For the time being, he satisfies his mother’s request by dancing with them.
While the prince dances, trumpets announce the arrival of Von Rothbart. He brings his daughter, Odile, on whom he has cast a spell to appear as Odette. The prince is captivated by her beauty and he dances with the imposter.
Unbeknownst to Prince Siegfried, the true Odette is watching him from a window. The prince soon confesses his love to Odile and proposes marriage, thinking that she is Odette.
Horrified, Odette flees into the night. Prince Siegfried sees the real Odette running from the window and realizes his mistake. Upon his discovery, Von Rothbart reveals to the prince the true appearance of his daughter Odile. Prince Siegfried quickly leaves the party and chases after Odette.
Odette has fled to the lake and joined the rest of the girls in sadness. Prince Siegfried finds them gathered at the shore consoling each other. He explains to Odette the trickery of Von Rothbart and she grants him her forgiveness.
It doesn’t take long for Von Rothbart and Odile to appear in their evil, un-human, and somewhat bird-like forms. Von Rothbart tells the prince that he must stick to his word and marry his daughter. A fight quickly ensues.
Prince Siegfried tells Von Rothbart that he would rather die with Odette than marry Odile. He then takes Odette’s hand and together they jump into the lake.
The spell is broken and the remaining swans turn back into humans. They quickly drive Von Rothbart and Odile into the water where they, too, drown. The girls watch the spirits of Prince Siegfried and Odette ascend into the heavens above Swan Lake.